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SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2005
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Anxiety growing for city budget
Decatur 4 months into fiscal year without a plan

By Martin Burkey
DAILY Staff Writer

mburkey@decaturdaily.com 340-2441

Police arrest lawbreakers. Garbage trucks run. The animal shelter picks up strays.

The city of Decatur is operating as usual, even though it is more than four months into fiscal 2005 without a budget.

If Alabama law required a formal budgeting process, the current administration might be governing from behind bars. But the law doesn't mandate that, so all the mayor faces is the threat that the City Council will lose its patience over the matter.

As of last week, former-banker-turned-mayor Don Kyle was fighting the flu and trying to account for every penny of the city's budget.

"I haven't had anybody screaming they're not delivering their services," he said.

The last administration didn't prepare or pass a budget. But it did start converting the city to new accounting software, and Kyle, after taking office, began separating day-to-day spending from big-ticket spending. The compound effect is the current delay.

After missing several estimates for when he could send a budget proposal to the City Council, Kyle is reluctant to make predictions beyond one word, "soon."

The council passed a continuing resolution, allowing departments to spend at last year's budget levels. Department heads, while claiming they've had no major problems, say they have seen delays as a result of the budget impasse and are eager to get a formal budget.

Council members say they appreciate what Kyle is doing to go through the budget in detail, and they're impressed that he seems to be familiar with any line item they mention. But they're also running out of patience.

Council President Billy Jackson said he is worried that the delay will make it difficult for departments to do the preliminary work needed before they can start projects. Even when the council gets Kyle's proposed budget, it will take time to study and debate the specifics, he said.

"We constantly ask where we are with the budget," Jackson said. "We've got to have a budget in front of us. If we can't get it soon, we will just have to take what we can get and figure out where we need to go with it."

Councilman Ronny Russell said the nonprofit agencies funded by the city are feeling the four-month delay, as are city departments with job openings that can't be advertised. Routine capital projects such as street work can't get done until the council approves them, he added.

"We're not really sure where we're at financially because we don't have our benchmark to look at for this year," he said. "I know several council members have expressed their sense it's time that we get to work on this budget. When we get a budget, it will be our first look at it, and we're still talking some additional time."

While the council's continuing resolution takes care of day-to-day expenses, it doesn't cover big-ticket capital spending, new programs or hiring employees. However, operating without a budget has been relatively easy because the council is approving major spending and personnel matters individually, and booking the costs against a 2005 budget whenever it has one.

On Monday, for instance, the council is expected to approve a $1.65 million bookkeeping measure to finance development of a sport fishing boat launch at the former Ingalls shipyard through internal borrowing. It also needs $167,000 to rebuild a landfill trash compactor.

The council recently OK'd $534,000 to match federal funds for starting a project to widen Danville Road from Modaus Road to Stone River Drive Southwest.

Kyle has approved scheduled 2005 merit pay raises for about 40 city employees so far, Personnel Director Ken Smith said.

Projects delayed

But the budget delay is holding up $1 million to begin right-of-way acquisition for widening Spring Avenue from Cedar Lake Road to Day Road. It also is delaying about 30 smaller projects such as adding a middle lane to Old Moulton Road near Beltline Road, extending Vestavia Drive and improvements to Chapel Hill Road.

Acting City Engineer Carl Prewitt said it's not a big problem so far.

"In actuality, the normal construction season would be from about March or April through about September/October," he said. "Have we lost the construction season? No. Could we have started something had we been budgeted? Yeah."

Building Department Director Jimmy Brothers said he hopes to fill a vacant building inspector job, but he's also making plans to operate without it.

Planning Director Jim Fisher said he hopes to update the city's long-range planning document this year, as well as surveying residents and businesses in a proposed downtown redevelopment district on their wishes, but he has put those projects on hold.

Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap said he doesn't have a problem yet. But he needs about $190,000 in equipment and three new employees to start taking care of the soccer fields at the 77-acre Southwest Recreation Center and other city parks when the weather gets warm and grass starts growing.

Police chief nervous

Police Chief Joel Gilliam hired eight recruits last year to replace losses in his department. They are in training now, but that training and then equipping them costs about $45,000 each. He's nervous about managing his department without a budget.

"The budget document tells you where the line is," he said. "Our budget assumes the same as last year. If any line item is reduced, I may have already spent my budget.

"I've talked with the mayor and he understands our concerns. At least we have what we had to work with last year, but we're not assured till the council approves the budget."

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